#MHAW | The Role of Play on Mental Health

Avril Johnstone, a research student at Strathclyde University is today's guest blogger for our celebration of Mental Health Awareness Week, writing about the positive effects of Play on mental health. 


Jeely Tree

When I was younger I would spend endless hours playing outside with friends and family: climbing trees, building dens, and jumping in puddles. When the light faded I would head home tired and messy and always having had the most fun ever.

My childhood was spent in the late 90s and early 2000s, when PlayStations, Gameboys, mobile phones, XBoxes (to name a few) became the ‘in thing’. Over the past 15 years we have seen a massive change in the playing behaviour of children. Children have swapped a messy, care-free childhood spent outdoors to playing an online game where they control a character in a virtual world.

Parents are, sometimes understandably, restricting their child’s play with concerns about ‘stranger danger’, their kids getting their clothes dirty and the safety of places to play. This has resulted in children travelling less distance to play, and 64% of children playing outside less than once a week. Research suggests the decline of play is having a negative effect on the mental health of children and their families, and, once again, it is affecting those from our most deprived areas, creating a landscape of mental health inequality.

In Glasgow alone depression and anxiety in adults is twice as high as the Scottish average. Furthermore, within Glasgow the suicide rate is 75% higher in the city’s most deprived areas compared to its average. Often mental health problems begin at a young age, with one in ten children currently suffering with a mental health problem. More worryingly, anxiety and depression in children has increased by 70% in the last 25 years. With our children experiencing growing mental health problems, more needs to be done to nurture mental wellbeing at an early age to prevent greater problems in adulthood, and this is particularly important in our most deprived areas. This is where play comes in.

There is a growing body of evidence to support the mental health benefits of play. Play is associated with reduced stress and anxiety, and improved self-esteem in children. Play also builds relationships between children. During play, children share, negotiate, develop resilience and resolve conflicts which teaches them life skills needed as they mature. Furthermore, child-led play improves family bonds, and allows care givers to listen and talk to their children in a different way, which is imperative for good mental health.

Go2Play, one of Inspiring Scotland’s funds, has developed an innovative way to improve mental health in children and families through play. The Go2Play fund supports Play Rangers, Family Support for Play and Active Play, all of which aim to increase play opportunities in Scotland’s most deprived communities.

Play provides much more than fond memories of childhood; climbing trees, building dens and getting messy all help mental wellbeing. We must let our children play now so they can cope with the stresses of everyday life that will continue as they become an adult.

Avril Johnstone is a research student with the Physical Activity for Health Group at the University of Strathclyde’s School of Psychological Sciences and Health


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